A small personal history of eating

My family has always been obsessed with food. It needed to tasty and cheap, and bonus points if you knew or liked the people providing it. Combining our Asian heritage with our Asian thrift meant that our favourite restaurants were a series of Cantonese restaurants in Vancouver my family adopted for as long as I remember: home-style cooking, nothing too fancy, unpretentious decor, and delicious food. “King Hong” was the first one I remember, steaming bowls of the house soup – a clear broth with huge pieces of carrots, honey garlic ribs, big pieces of crisp tofu, and a few times, on special occasion: sturgeon. Chongs was its successor, and we went for years. Mom bringing her own green beans from the garden to them to fry in fermented bean paste; steamed fish, hotpots.

While people often equate economy with stinginess, it was the opposite in my family – who had no greater delight than to introduce others to our favourite Chinese restaurants, pay the bill, and brush it off by saying that it wasn’t expensive. When I visit old college friends around the world, they remind me that their first experience of Chinese food was with my parents – and I have some wonder at how many of my friends my parents have treated to dinner.

The other value instilled by my family was that food should be unusual or particular to a place and season. My mother delighted in the cheeks of fish, even small ones, the tiny tenderest morsel, and so now, we, her children do the same. Hawaii, my mother’s birthplace, was the opportunity to eat fresh papaya and mangoes, barracuda, custard pies, Portuguese donuts, soft-fried wonton in gravy: things best bought and consumed locally. So, we got used to tasting the difference between plates in different countries, and know, for example, that the wonton beef brisket noodle soup in Vancouver is likely better than anywhere else in the world for its alchemy of the softest meat, slightly chewy fresh egg noodles, and savoury broth.

My experiences in Europe changed the way that I ate. During my student life in Canada, we tended to have potluck dinners (or “bring a plate” as they say in Australia), during which we would experiment with vegetarian recipes from the Moosewood Cookbook. In fact, so many of friends were vegetarian that I didn’t learn to cook with meat.

In Brussels, I was introduced to the “dinner party”. I had little to do then aside from work, and was cut off from the French and Flemish cultural life of the city. Many of the people I made friends with invited me over for meals. My first invitation was to the home of my cultured and kind friends Nils and Henri. I admit embarrassment, recalling the 25 year old Canadian, astonished that a meal would come in different courses with a different wine for each course. I was awed and delighted and think that I probably didn’t enjoy the food as much as I could have, as I was somewhat bewildered and hoping that I didn’t make a dining faux-pas.

But after that I started to throw my own dinner parties. I learned to make several courses. I learned to cook meat. I learned that they didn’t have to be complicated if the food was good in the first place – and I’d never tasted such high quality produce – a market near my apartment in Brussels had 15 different varieties of lettuce, at a time when I probably only knew iceberg and romaine! I still remember the quality of the duck breasts at my local butcher in London. With some effort, perhaps I would have been able to find this quality of food in the Canadian cities that I’d lived in, but I was a student then, and didn’t really care. But Brussels made it easy. If I was short on time, chocolates would make do as dessert, and nowhere else are there chocolate shops on every corner, pralines freshly made and available in wonderful variety. I was lucky to know so many fine restaurants and so much fine wine in Europe.

After Europe, I lived in Sydney and finally had the economic power to eat at good restaurants regularly, the opportunity to travel and try good restaurants in different cities. Sydney is a city where people dine out a lot, and have less dinner parties. The restaurants are superb – with inventive chefs using high-quality produce – and I love the Asian-influence on fine dining. A review long ago argued that Sydney has the best Thai food in the world, better than Thailand even, due to the availability of ingredients, skill of chefs, and the spirit and daring of both Sydney chefs and diners.

And then the world entered the phase of fine dining, popularised. There were many restaurants in Sydney specializing in degustation menus which range from five to ten courses, opportunities to savour a whole range of foods as well as the expertise of the chefs. And then the whole world seemed to be celebrating eating these days, with hit TV shows and cookbooks and celebrity chefs. And trying to dine at Noma or Heston Blumenthal’s latest. I jumped onto this trend wholeheartedly, partly because I became romantically involved with partners who were willing to dine with me at these restaurants. It’s easier to go somewhere nice as a couple. When my husband and I travel, we usually make sure we go to a top restaurant or two: Michelin-starred meals in France and Denmark were particularly memorable.

During this period, I even had my time as a food blogger. I was so inspired by the meals that I was eating, I decided to write about them and put photos up on my blog. And then, a series of websites made it easy to put up reviews, like eatability.com.au and yelp.com.au, and zomato even made a game of it, where the more reviews you put up, the higher you ranked on a list of a city’s top food bloggers.

It was a fun time, but that period of my life didn’t last. With the news Noma is closing, there have been many interesting articles that perhaps this era of fine dining should come to a close. The restaurants are only accessible to the wealthy. The chefs and staff are time-poor, and money-poor, from it, and burn out. They don’t make sense economically nor in terms of the mental health of those who provide the food. The end of my food blogging was mostly because of stopping going to restaurants, which was a result of COVID lockdowns. During this period, I unexpectedly discovered a passion for home cooking (and making cocktails). I’d always enjoyed throwing a dinner party but suddenly, I became really, really excited about cooking delicious meals for the two of us. One inspiration came from a challenge from friends on Facebook to cook our way through countries alphabetically, from A to Z. And a more recent inspiration is the cookbook, Tenderheart, by Hetty Lui McKinnon which has moved us towards eating less meat, with ease rather than effort, because the recipes are so inspiring.

When I was an angsty teenager, I used to complain that my parents expressed their love to me through food (and generosity in paying for food) rather than through direct expression. Of course, I have become them, fussing over dishes before a dinner party, thinking nothing could be better than a successful course! Meanwhile, I know my parents were proud of me for my delight in food – something that I inherited from them, and from our Chinese culture, and have integrated it into my life now. At the very least, it gave and gives us something to talk about. And there was no better moments in my adult life when I was able to take my parents to special meals (two occasions stand out: a gastronomique restaurant in the Belgian countryside, and Sydney’s Tetsuya’s when it was at its peak popularity) and insist: it was my treat.

Posted in Blogging, Family, Food n' Grog | Leave a comment

2023 in lists: concerts & shows, theatre, books, movies and TV

A work in progress …

Movies (seen on TV, probably on a streaming service, or on an airplane)

  • Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery: What I liked about this was how purely entertaining it was. It had no pretensions except to be enjoyable, and we did.
  • Amsterdam: The star power was incredible and I really enjoyed Christian Bale. But it was weird. When Mike Myers was on-screen, it became a Mike Myers film, and then when Robert De Niro was on-screen, it was a Robert De Niro film. The story seemed an excuse to put everyone together.
  • The Menu: Apropo of the news that the restaurant Noma is closing comes a movie that combines TV shows like Iron Chef and the Chef’s Table, the excesses of fine dining taken to a new level and combined with a dark horror show: this movie was absolutely bonkers and I loved it. 
  • Matilda, the Musical: We saw the musical in NYC one year and were interested to see how they expanded the musical into a movie. Love, love, love the music. Love everything about Emma Thompson’s performance. It’s a dark story, as bequeathed by Roald Dahl, and a lot of fun. 

Movies (seen in the cinema)

  • Avatar: The Way of Water: I can barely remember the first one, though I saw it and I remember some of the controversy over whether people liked the computer animation or not. I liked a lot about the film, the images, the world building, but could have done without all the violent battle scenes, and the story and characterisations were really basic and juvenile. It didn’t appeal to me.
  • Triangle of Sadness: Damn it. WTF? Winning the Cannes best film award and the bonkers trailer, we thought this would be amusing. But it was chaotic and shallow, and whenever hinting at some depth of commentary or thinking, it veered away. Too nonsensical to be entertaining and the criticism of the wealthy was as shallow as it portrayed the characters to be. 

Television

  • Wednesday: I did find this entertaining, and Jenna Ortega is a star. I found it slow in parts and that it could have been a bit better, but I don’t think I was the target audience.  
  • The Resort: This science fiction time-travelling murder mystery was called a cross between ‘White Lotus’ and ‘Murders in the Building’, so we HAD to see it. Starring William Jackson Harper, Cristin Milioti and others, this was really engaging and whacky. We quite, quite liked it. 
  • Welcome to Chippendales: A sordid tale, told with camp abandon. Some critics have been calling it shallow but I found the performances great and was drawn in.
  • Fleishman is in Trouble: Such a dark vision of middle age, at least rich, straight, Jewish middle-aged New Yorkers with kids. And never have I seen a television show (a mini-series at least) with so much narration, literary narration since it was adapted from a book (that I loved) and that it worked. I found this to be amazing television: funny, sad, transfixing, engaging and original.
  • Borgen, season 3: Husband is watching this for the first time and I’m rewatching it. Such good TV. I’m transfixed by the great actors and wonderful storytelling. 

Documentaries and Reality Television

  • X:

Books

  • X:

Concerts, Shows, Theatre, Exhibitions & Words

  • Lil Nas X: A We’re not really fans but wanted to see the phenomenon, and it was a phenomenon! A sold-out concert with a very diverse crowd, including children, who all seemed to know all the words to the song. Being at the Hordern Pavilion, I couldn’t see much from where we were; I’d plan better next time to try to grab a seat at the side. All in all, I’m amazed and pleased that a gay black rapper and musician has become so popular and loved. 
  • Sydney Modern: We finally visited the new addition to the Art Gallery of NSW and what a weird place it is. Absolutely loved some of the exhibitions and art, such as the theme of home, and the big primal sci-fi constructions in the oil tank in the basement. And yet there was no much open space and the greenery hasn’t grown. It felt in places like a convention centre. 

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Guest Blog: MarketingHQ – 10 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Marketing

Originally posted 29 October 2013 on www.boldface.com.au:

Marketing has strong links to copywriting and editing. Marketing copy needs to read well and be edited so it’s error-free. Copywriting needs to have basic marketing skills to understand who the target audience is and how to convey key messages.

I enjoy working with marketers and the lessons I’ve learned from them, and I know their experience and expertise is useful for my clients as well.

Of course, there’s a big difference between marketers, and today’s guest blogger, Chris Dale from MarketingHQ, is one of the best around. If you need marketing support, I’d suggest dropping my his website and getting in contact.

In the meantime, he shares some of his wealth of knowledge with us here:

10 Things You Can Do Today To Improve Your Marketing

1. Track your leads

Do you know how customers find you? If you don’t then start asking them.  There are a few simple ways to do this.

You can simply ask new customers, include it as a required field on a website enquiry form or include a tracking mechanism within your advertising activity.  Whatever you do, find out how they found you.  It will show you what part of your marketing strategy is working, and what isn’t.

2.  Say thanks for referrals

Do you know how powerful it is to say thank you for referrals?  It’s so easy to do, but often forgotten by small business.Today you must put a system in place to thank every person that refers a client to you.

This could be a handwritten note or a small gift.  You know what will happen if you do?  You will get more referrals – it’s that simple.

3.  Talk to your customers

Have you ever asked a customer why they keep coming back to your business?  By just talking to customers you can find a unique selling point that you can use to promote your business.  You can then use that in your marketing to attract more customers.

4.  Nurture your prospects.

In small business, not every customer interaction results in a sale. But by providing a positive experience with every prospect you begin the process of nurturing your prospects towards a sale.

5. Use emotion to sell

It’s not always tangible benefits that sell a product or service.

Take diamonds for example.  Men don’t buy diamonds because they want to own an indestructible colourless form of pure carbon (yes, I did Google that definition).  They buy them for the emotional reaction and for what is says to the person they are giving them to. Tap into the emotional benefit in your marketing and watch your sales grow.  If you want to read more about this, here is my latest post on Nett Blog which discusses using emotion in marketing.

6. Know your ideal customer

If you know your ideal customer, you should be able to find the emotional triggers to use in your marketing. Knowing your ideal customer is more than knowing their demographic profile.

Know their hopes, their dreams, what keeps them awake at night and motivates them to get up in the morning. Know their problems and show how your business solves them in your marketing.

7. Add value, don’t discount

Customers are so used to discounts these days, that they don’t have the same  impact they used to. Your best option is to add value and it will probably cost you less in lost revenue.

For example.  If you sell an item for $100 and discount it by 20% you lose $20.  But if you sell that same item and offer a gift with purchase to the value of $20 (which has probably cost you $8), you are $12 better off. The customer has come out of your store with more, but it’s actually cost you less.  Now that’s good business.

8. Understand the concept of ‘just noticeable difference’

Just noticeable different is term used in consumer behaviour.  In marketing it refers to a certain percentage you can change aspects of your marketing and the consumer won’t notice.  That percentage is around 10%.  So what does that mean.  Well, you could raise your prices by 10% and more often than not, the customer won’t notice the difference.

If you change your product packaging by less than 10%, customers will still recognise your product.  If you change it more than 10%, more often than not you will need to re-educate the customer.  So what am I saying to you?  Put your prices up 10% – it’s more than likely nobody will notice the difference.

9. Join a networking group

It is my view that a networking group is a must for any small business owner. Not only are they a great source of referrals but also a great source of business support. With a networking group you can tap into the knowledge of other people, seek their advice and feedback which will help improve your marketing.  You should join one today.

10. Get some marketing advice

Yes, ok it’s shameless plug time.  But everyone is not a marketing expert but many small businesses fail to learn anything about marketing before they open their doors. Get some advice from a marketing consultant and your marketing will improve dramatically.

So there you have it , 10 things you can do today to improve your marketing.  Do you have any more I can add to the list?

The original post can be found here.

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I switched web hosting! Part 1. Leaving Site5.

So, my yearly web hosting expires in February. I’d finally noticed that for the last many years, the price for web hosting on Site5 is much higher than other competitors. My problem was that I got it, and then just stuck with it because of complacency. For years. It looks like I registered with them in December 2012 and have no idea when their service went downhill. They provided terrible service and the reviews on the net confirm that while they might have started OK, they declined badly. The reviews are awful.

My problems were various. For at least three years, and possibly to date, I couldn’t send emails to yahoo accounts. It seems the server had been blocked. But after trying over a long period of time, and even posting complaints to Twitter, nothing was done.

The price, US$250, for a year, was so ridiculous that I can’t believe that I have paid this without thinking about it. I’m normally economical.

For the last years, my WordPress Dashboard told me that my site was running an outdated version of PHP that is no longer supported and may cause issues with AIOSEO. But, the only way, Site5 told me, to fix this, is by paying for a higher level of service.

It was confounding, and then, the worst thing was during the Christmas and New Year’s period, I was unable to receive and send emails during various periods of time. I got an email saying that they would be switching my server from USCentral425 to something else, and would let me know what is happening. I received NO further communication, but when my email stopped on 24 December, I asked the online Helpdesk (which is probably the best thing about Site5) what to do, and they told me to switch to Shared169.

This seemed to work but when it stopped again, on New Year’s Eve, I contacted them again. The next Helpdesk person thought the reason was because my IP is on a blacklist, and I needed to contact SORBS. So, I contacted my ISP for help, 10Mates, and they said they would do what they could. I also further investigated the blacklist issue and the error message said that the blacklisting was from years ago. And their automated reply said that my IP space was ‘not eligible for delisting’. So, I think that Helpdesk person was wrong and wasted my time. I had no clue what to do BUT my email then started working on and off, though it stopped for nearly a full working day on 3 January.

When it started working again in early January, I decided it was time for me to switch web hosting as soon as I can. And not before posting a bad review. I decided TrustPilot seems to be well read and legitimate:

TrustPilot review: Don’t use Site5!

My problem is that there are dozens of sites that recommend ‘the best web hosting in Australia’. But none of them are clear who they are. Are they paid by the web hosts themselves? What gives them the authority to make recommendations. The Australian consumer site, Whirlpool, had no recent relevant discussions. Using a few of these sites originally led me to look at Hostpapa and Hostinger, but when I decided to take a punt and choose Hostpapa, I saw that their renewal rates are exorbitant. So, they suck you in with cheap prices for the first few years, and then hope, like I did with Site5, that you are too lazy to change to another server.

I finally found a list of recommendations from PCMag.com, which I considered legitimate. It’s top choice for what I need was Hostgator. In fact, it’s a rave review. But looking at it, there was the same issue. Sign you up at a cheap rate and then … charge a lot more for subsequent years. I looked for a review for Hostinger, which PCMag.com said is pretty good (but not as good as Hostgator), and their pricing plan looked reasonable. It was cheaper to sign up for three years, and then slightly more expensive for two years, and then one year, but the renewal rates were reasonable.

Much as I was still nervous about making the right decision, and that I didn’t have enough information or knowledge to be sure, I decided to try Hostinger. I’ll write about how that turned out in another blog post!

Posted in Advice, Blogging | Leave a comment

Book review: ‘A Little Life’, revisited

A Little LifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spoiler alert: I assume that you have read A Little Life already and like me, are reading more about it to help you make sense of it! Please don’t read this if you haven’t read it or haven’t finished it.

For years, decades in fact, I never reread books. I felt that there was an infinite supply of good books that I should read, and that rereading one book would take away from reading a new book. But so many things in life have changed. I read much, much less than I used to. And I also have come to think: why not read a book that I know I have enjoyed?

In this circumstance, discovering ‘A Little Life’ was still on my iPhone and easily accessible in a needed context (for example, a long flight and it being easier to read something on a device than turning on the reading light on the plane, while others are trying to sleep) meant it was a no-brainer to read it again. And then I remembered, which seemed poetic, that I read it the first time at basically the exact time of year, seven years ago. Plus, I was curious: why did I love it so much the first time around? And then: why didn’t I like Yanagihara’s follow-up, ‘On Paradise’.

The first question is easier to answer. I did remember that there was trickery involved. That while the book appears to be a story about a group of four young men in New York City, it turns out to be about one of them, and his life, which may or may not be little. So, I suppose I’m surprised at how improvisational the start of the book feels. Was the trickery purposeful or not? Focusing briefly on other characters, and even speaking through other characters (the chapters of Harold, speaking to Willem, about Jude), but that the story, in the end is not about the four friends, but about Jude. It *could* feel like a writing exercise (‘practice writing from different points of view’) and yet, I was fully engaged throughout.

I’m not sure I remembered how much I enjoyed the writing itself, and the author’s intelligence of both practical and emotional matters. Her description of the law, and the legal profession, bring them to life, resounding with questions and energy. Same goes with her description of JB’s paintings, and some of the other modern art being created. I enjoyed the context, the structures around the lives of Jude and his friends. And I was struck repeatedly by how much I liked the writing: beautiful images, beautiful sentences, beautiful writing. Even trying to be more critical the second read, I found the writing original, beautiful and engaging, though I know that some critics found the writing in parts imprecise or overblown.

But most of all, I think what captured me was the exploration of big moral and emotional questions: What is the meaning of friendship? How do we trust? How do we repair? How shall we survive in the world both financially and emotionally? Can we change? All of these questions are addressed with such depth and passion, and the biggest questions: around how we love and care for each other, about what makes it worthwhile or not to live, about how much suffering a person can endure: Yanagihara’s passionate questioning made this a page-turning thriller, as much as her use of techniques to raise tension and resolve it. And I was drawn to read this book quickly and compulsively because I cared about the characters and wanted to know what happens to them.

There’s another obvious attraction. I’ve fantasised since my early 20s, I think, about living in New York City. On visits, I realised that this really was a fantasy; it’s a tough city and not an easy one to live in. I’m happy where I am, in Sydney. But the novel allows me to indulge that fantasy while I’m reading it. And another fantasy is that more often than not, a contrast to the horrible things in the book, the characters treat each other with love, respect and kindness, the friendship of created families, and I like the fantasy of that as well. I do love my friends, family and especially my husband, but there’s something heightened about the caring between people in the novel that I enjoy reading about.

I sense that the book is a sort of magic spell. If you fall under it, you love it (as so many people did), but for some, there are various things that break the spell. In the follow-up to Yanagihara’s success, I was interested to read criticism of ‘A Little Life’. One acquaintance said that it was pornographic in portraying and creating suffering and pain. And it is true. It does go overboard. In one passage, Jude wants to ‘hurt himself, to scoop out his insides and hurl them against the wall with a bloody thwack’. The pain, the suffering, is described both metaphorically and literally and it is uncomfortable. And repetitive, like Jude’s self-injurying, which only gets worse and worse.

Others pointed out that the author had admitted to doing no research in creating Jude. And it sounds like that’s another school of criticism, if you want the book to be realistic instead of being a fairy tale (an instructive one) or a tragic opera, meant not to capture reality but to evoke emotion and thought. I can imagine being offended and upset if my lived experiences didn’t match what’s been created.

The second reading, it was easier for the spell to break. Such is the power of fiction that the first reading I felt uncomfortable with but didn’t question just how much trauma is piled on top of trauma. While the book seems to be very positive about same-sex attraction and gays, the scenario portrayed is the worst nightmare of homophobes: that in any and every circumstance lurks abusive pedophiles who are willing to exploit and attack young men. Jude grows up in a monastery where he is abused until a young age (10?) and then escapes the monastery with one of the brothers, who then abuses him AND pimps him out across many states to hundreds of men. He escapes at around 11 or 12 to a sort of halfway house where he continues to be abused by the ‘counsellors’. He hitchhikes with truckers who are willing to exploit him before becoming imprisoned and then RUN over by a nasty ‘psychologist’.

It’s relentless. And that’s just the back story. Giving Jude as a first relationship a man who is wildly physically and emotionally abusive and does not suffer realistic consequences (being reported, being jailed) but karmic consequences (dying of cancer) is painful enough. All those of you who read the book know that the worst act of the author is giving Jude love, with his long friend Willem, only to kill Willem in an accident. I’d think that one, maybe two of these circumstances would be enough, but they’re piled upon each other and amplified, and the author has the choice of stopping, of giving Jude a happier story, some redemption. In a way, it feels like the author is one of Jude’s abusers herself: continuing to pile on the pain and trauma.

This also jars with I know about trauma. Jude is created as a savant. He sings beautifully, plays the piano, cooks at a gourmet level, can do household tasks like sewing and cleaning and baking bread. He has a genius-level intellect, supporting his career as a top lawyer. He is a botanist, knowing how to care for and grow plants. But from what I know, trauma, extreme trauma, blunts intelligence and life. While it’s clear that Yanagihara wants to create an unforgettable, truly original hero, who is both a genius and severely traumatised, I can certainly understand how this fictional creation does NOT work for some readers.

Other parts also jar. Sex, for Jude, is obviously emotionally and psychically traumatic, but it’s also described as physically painful. Always. Which, after hundreds of sexual experiences (mostly rape) and being able to perform the act convincingly well, I’d think it just wouldn’t be physically painful anymore. I mean, this is from a guy who cuts himself regularly. Jude is also described as having physically lasting effects from sexually transmitted infections, and honestly, having worked in sexual health, for men, he could have become impotent, which wouldn’t have mattered to him, but otherwise, this vague idea (as opposed to the graphic, in-depth descriptions of his physical scars and cutting) of him being permanently diseased is, I think, not right. I’m also not comfortable with the repetition of the theme, also relentness, of Jude’s guilt of not wanting sex with Willem. Lots of long-term couples stop having sex with each other. Still, I guess it’s just a heightened portrayal of Jude’s trauma: his lack of self-belief, his lack of love for himself, but it was something I noticed on a second reading.

The other fairy tale elements were the positive ones. Some critics disliked the descriptions of food, which I absolutely didn’t mind. But I did find it unbelievable that Jude’s circle of friends could, with ease, meet up in Paris, London and Rome, regularly. And I found it most unbelievable that Jude, so mentally unwell, could function at a top level, for a top law firm, at all times AND that he could do this while being disabled, more mild at first, but then with a double amputation? As I understand from disability advocates, this world is simply not accessible to all. That Jude, with severe mobility issues and disability, would be able to work and travel to Shanghai and London, and basically, to travel all over Europe and NYC and the surrounds: it snapped me out of the spell.

And yet, even though I was more critical the second time around, I was still surprised at how engaged I was (as evidenced by this quasi-review). I remember that the first reading, near the end, on a bus, I burst out into tears. I don’t think that’s happened before to me with a book. And it sort of short-circuits critical faculty. Which is an interesting point really: Does art have to make sense? Or be realistic? What if its aim is to make one feel? To think?

What I felt that first reading the most was a sort of love, that Yanagihara had created these characters, especially her hero, and described them in elegant prose that made emotional sense to me, and that I’d fallen a bit in love with them all. The second reading, I wasn’t as surprised by it, knowing what would happen, but WAS surprised by how engaged I was by it again, how beautiful I found the writing, and how interesting the questions. I think it really is an interesting work of art.

Which then leaves me with the question: what happened with her next book ‘To Paradise’. Her skillful writing didn’t draw me into the three stories. In the end, I felt more perplexed than anything else. Could it be that Jude is the one she loved the most, and the questions raised by his story? And that passion for him, and his chosen family, came through and elevated the writing.

The criticism of A Little Life is fascinating. Writing in Salon, Christian Lorentzen  says Jude is a ‘vacuum of charisma’ and blames the author for Jude being an ‘infuriating object of attention’ but more of a ‘concept’. He uses Yanagihara’s own words to point out her lack of research, implying a lack of truthfulness about the characters and story. It’s really a very odd review, as it delves into the book deeply and describes scenes and characters but seems to tease with his criticism: it’s clear he disliked the book and all the characters except one, but the clearest criticism is in the headline, which he might not have written! ‘dull prose, lazy plotting and stereotypical characters’ … ‘2015’s most infuriating, overpraised novel’.

A much more illuminating review is in Vox by Constance Grady, though still quite mean, saying she’s not a good writer, and both of Yanagihira’s books are indulgent and dishonest. But at least she explains why, in a way I found convincing, and surprising by likening the work to fan fiction, writing mainly by straight women imagining romance between gay men. While the spell wasn’t broken for me in A Little Life, by To Paradise, I did wonder why the fascination with gay men, and if she had anything new or enlightening or interesting to say. In fact, I didn’t notice my first read the terrible and continuous pedophile association with gay men and the gay characters really don’t have a lived sense of being gay, being outsiders. Nor does love or sexuality free or elevate them. So, as a gay man, I’m not so happy that we’re just pawns in her novels, moved around as representations of otherness without illumination. The bigger criticism, which I’m happy that Grady pointed out, and agree with is that there’s a purposeful message in A Little Life which is uncomfortable: that pain and trauma can’t be healed; the only solution is death; therapy, and particular talk therapy doesn’t help, nor do relationships, support or friendships. I read one interview where Yanagihara was proud to have gone for an unhappy, tragic ending, to not follow suit of contemporary literature’s love of redemption and a happy ending.

I feel ambivalent. Some critics feel that her use of melodrama and trauma are a cheap trick, a sign of bad writing. And yet the book was hugely successful and deeply touched so many readers. Not that mass readership is a sign of a good book (Fifty Shades of Grey, The Da Vinci Code) but as a writer and reader, I really did love a lot of Yanagihara’s writing, and her plotting and characterisations drew me so firmly into the book that, as I said, I fell firmly under its spell. While I may be more ambivalent about the book now, it’s not a bad sign that the book caused controversy and debate, as much good art does.

View all my reviews

Posted in Book, Book Review, Gay Life, Review, Writing | Leave a comment

Book Review: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life

A Little LifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I posted this review on Goodreads in January 2016 (such a long time ago) and was surprised to see recently that I never posted it here on my website. I just happened to reread it lately and have some thoughts … but in order to post them on Goodreads, I need to replace the old review with the new one. So, that’s another good reason for posting this here.

*Non-spoiler review*

A deeply emotional, beautifully written novel: full, complex and harrowing. It speaks with depth about our relationships of friendship and love, and also our relationship with life itself, told across such a substantial time period that gives an affecting weight to this novel about a character who I fell in love with, but cannot love himself.

*Review with spoilers (really, this is written for others who have read the book)*

I forgive you, Hanya, really I do: for putting me through the wringer like the last season of Six Feet Under, for making me cry aloud with a reading experience I don’t recall having gone through, for revealing or inflicting so much pain on your protagonist that I wondered if it would be worth it. But of course it was, though in a way too deep and complex to describe in a book review. To get some idea of that, someone would have to read the book themselves, and then all of us would have our own individual responses and reactions, but I’m pretty sure that yes, we would all forgive you.

I downloaded Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life to read on holidays because I wanted something substantial to read; I’d read about the book’s awards; I like her name (c’mon, admit it; it’s a cool name); and I was intrigued by what little I’d heard about the book: about four friends, some of them gay, in and around New York City. While I was trying to avoid reading any substantial reviews (and thus influence my reading), I did read a line about her cruelty to her characters, and a pal on Facebook mentioned he found it too hard to read or finish.

So, my experience of the book was interesting in light of this. I was first interested in her storytelling. The last major novel I’d read, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, was so wordy, with huge long sections and chapters, without break, I found it a relief that Yanagihara’s storytelling seems straightforward and clear, moving back and forth between focusing on different characters, and expertly and unusually moving into the second-person at times (with one character addressing another). There is a clear focus on a particular time period in the character’s lives, with stories from the past slowly and expertly revealed, and the breadth of time portrayed, taking the characters from late teens to late middle-age, gives such a feeling of substance: of complex lives lived, and of the not inconsiderable genius to capture them in such an ambitious novel. I also found her writing addictive, and because I was so interested in her characters and stories, I found the book hard to put down.

After the initial impression that her writing was straightforward, I was then more and more impressed with how beautiful it is. It’s not showy but occasionally moves into unusual metaphor and lovely poetic qualities, though what’s most impressive is how she employs it: she is interested in describing emotional lives, and friendships, the ways we become closer and move away from each other, as well as memory and the passage of time. After I read the book, I read an interview where she spoke of her specific intentions to write about the inability of men to communicate with each other, a lack of an emotional vocabulary, and I definitely felt this through the whole book without being able to actually say what was happening. So masterful.

And the story! My god. I didn’t expect it to be so emotional and intense, and build and build. I found myself with physical reactions, cringing and revulsed, nearly cried out to stop one character from doing something and, yes, I was crying or near tears many times (although flying does make me a bit emotional).

It is an incredible and powerful story, not one I’ve come across or read about before. In fact, about three-quarters into the book, I did start to wonder whether the author was being too cruel to her protagonist: how much pain and misfortune can one person take? Not one, two, or three trials, but I’d count five. FIVE.

It was then that I felt a contradiction: because the emotions feel so real and authentic, the intelligence so lively and grounded in an understanding of how people move around us, I found myself questioning the shape of the story, the incredible tragedy of the main character, revealed and compounded, and even his friends: ridiculously successful in their chosen careers. In the end, it allowed me to appreciate the novel more by thinking of it as a fable, a novel, a fairy tale of sorts, so the exaggeration is more myth than melodrama.

A final comment is about the multiracial cast of characters of various sexualities. I came of age reading gay literature, written by gay men, as well as writing by those of us from different ethnic backgrounds exploring (and celebrating) our cultural backgrounds. So, a Japanese-American woman writer crossing genders to write about men, with characters who are naturally from a diversity of cultural backgrounds, and all expressing complex sexualities seems to represent a brand, new world for me.

I detected not a false note, and to have created a protagonist (as I discovered, this book involves a group of four friends, but the story really belongs to one of them) whose sexuality is a result of circumstance and emotional connection (not from a gene or orientation) also feels particularly contemporary, even moreso because the writing and themes aren’t forced with a political imperative, but come from a literary imperative to create a powerful story.

I’m still a bit stunned by this book. Some books I love because I admire them, or the writing, or I like the themes and stories. This book surprised me, drew me in and has left me emotionally exhausted. Phew.

What did you think?

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Who blogs?

Originally published 10 September 2015 on www.boldface.com.au:

Is blogging important these days?

In the early days of blogging (and Wikipedia tells me that blogs emerged and became popular in the late 1990s), it was all about making a statement, building a public persona and getting a following.

And that’s what you did: if you found someone interesting, perhaps because they had the same interests as you – political, creative, community, recreational – you followed them. At the time, it was only the folks most adept at IT who could set up blogs and make them look and read in an interesting way. They also had the ability to source information from other places (I mean other places on the internet) in a way that most mere mortals couldn’t.

A lot has changed since then. Sites like blogger mean that anyone and everyone can blog, at any time. Everyone knows how to find information easily these days for what they’re interested in. The culture has become much more visual, quicker and less word-based.

Over fifteen years since the late 1990s, I think that few people keep personal blogs anymore, that they are rarely kept updated. The idea of keeping a sort of public journal has really been taken over, first by Facebook, and now by Tumblr and Flick and Instagram.

Newspapers and online magazines sometimes call something a blog, but that’s what a blog always was anyways: an online column or opinion piece. So, it’s appropriate that blogs still live on newspaper and magazine websites.

Blogs have really seen a rise, fall and re-envisioning in the business world. All of our websites have a place for a blog; and in fact, a blog is encouraged. It often is seen as a way of making sure the front page of your website is not static. By changing it regularly, it will engage with visitors, and possibly draw more traffic. That’s the theory anyways, and a bit strange, that it doesn’t matter what you say, as long as you’re saying it.

But it does matter what you say, it’s just that people aren’t finding the information in the same way. In this vast web of information, people don’t ‘follow’ the blogs of an individual or company. If they’re looking for specific information, Google will point them to that specific blog (and sadly for the blog-owners, it’s unlikely that the person will take the time to look at any other blog posts).

On this personal blog (as opposed to this blog post, originally on my work website), I’m still a bit amazed about the searches that end up at my blog posts: the most popular one is about buying second-hand clothes in Paris; the second most popular bunch is about eating at the restaurant Geranium in Copenhagen. Meanwhile, I seem to be blogging mostly with food reviews these days, and discovering that some blogs do seem to exist and are followed if they really keep specifically to a particular specific interest.

The other benefit of a blog is that if someone happens to visit someone’s website (perhaps you, dear reader), a blog is a sign that a company or individual writes, and hopefully has something to say, and can demonstrate expertise or interest. It is an additional way that someone can engage with you; it can be a fun place to store and post thoughts; it can be a good way to involve other people in a company (though hiring someone just to write your blogs destroys this point); and can be a good excuse to write (which for writers is a good thing).

Of course, blogs are also often public evidence of intentions not kept, the promise (often in the first blog posts) broken of writing regularly, of being able to ‘keep up with blogging.’

But who can keep up with modern life these days? Rather than looking negatively at the thousands and thousands of truncated blogs, blogs sporadic and blogs not updated, captured on the Internet for everyone to see, we could think, ‘At least we try’.

 

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Book Review: Hetty Lui McKinnon’s Tenderheart

Tenderheart: A Cookbook about Vegetables and Unbreakable Family BondsTenderheart: A Cookbook about Vegetables and Unbreakable Family Bonds by Hetty Lui McKinnon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m not sure I’ve done a book review of a recipe book … but why not? On Goodreads, I see that it hasn’t been released in North America yet, so my review there is the first one up!

I’d seen Hetty’s name and recipes in the New York Times and elsewhere, and when I heard about the Australian book launch, I thought it would be interesting to go, and to get a copy of this book. It was a great event, and a great introduction to her. I bought the book. There is so much to love.

I’ve wanted to eat less meat and more vegetables for a while, and it’s THIS BOOK that has moved my husband and I in this direction and not as a chore but as a pleasure. The book is divided into chapters on different vegetables, and so it’s a great reference. But more than that, comparing it with other recipe books, this one excites me. There are a few recipes for those who want to tackle a more complicated project, but most are quite easy. But they tend to each teach me a different cooking technique and how to use different ingredients in different ways. They often use Asian ingredients that I’m interested in trying out or like to use (Korean spices, say, or Asian seaweed, or kim chee). We’ve made SO many of these recipes now.

The other thing is that the book feels deeply personal, in a beautiful way. She has dedicated the book to her father, and the photo of him even looks a little like my Dad, the son of the owner of a vegetable and produce shop in Vancouver! She also writes about developing the recipes during COVID lockdown, resulting in dishes that are humble, made with easily accessible ingredients, and yet elevated by her expertise and experience. This is really delicious stuff, and will touch your heart as well as fill your belly. I highly, highly recommend it.

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Posted in Asian, Book, Food n' Grog, Review | Leave a comment

How to refill a long lighter

(Originally posted 14 December 2017): Does anyone else have this problem? I’ve never liked cigarette lighters. I spin the little metal dial, get the flame up, and then when trying to light my tea lights (which is the main reason why I would use a lighter), I manage to angle the lighter so that it burns my fingers. In situations where a gas stove needs lighting, I have always had the fear that I will light the gas and my whole hand.

That is why I have always used long lighters.

I’ve always found it wasteful, though they only cost between $2 and $6, to throw them out when the butane has run out. But the thing is, the first times I tried refilling them, many years ago, I remember it being a complete disaster.

But things move fast these days. I thought of this task more recently and realised that at the time, it was unlikely for there to be advice up on the internet, but nowadays, there is advice on EVERYTHING. The weird thing is that the advice that I found was super complicated and often wrong.

The worst advice involved removing the cartridge from a cigarette lighter and then removing the cartridge from the long lighter, and putting the cigarette lighter cartridge into the long lighter AFTER you’ve made a few small adjustments.

Yeah, right. A video from a kid (who shouldn’t be playing with lighters) didn’t help out, and gave advice that was opposite to what eventually worked. The best advice was found on a message board, but without illustration. So, I thought that I could help out here, for anyone who was once, like me, confused.

How to refill a long lighter:

  • Buy a can of butane
  • Use the smallest nozzle and first use it (or a pin or a screwdriver) to completely release any remaining gas or butane that is in the lighter. Put your instrument into the small hole and press until there is no pressure left, no sound, nothing. This can be an important step, though the truth is, I’ve managed to refill the lighter when there is still a small bit of gas in the compartment.
  • When the cartridge is completely empty, then you can fill it up. Hold the can of butane upside down with the nozzle inserted into the tiny hole for refilling the butane!

  • Press down. It’s likely that extra butane will leak over your fingers, which will be cold, so you might want to wear gloves. And you’d probably want to do this on a solid surface rather than my hands in the air illustration purposes only.
  • You will be able to see in the window whether the cartridge has filled up.

I’m still using the same can of butane to refill lighters 2.5 years after I first wrote this post. And I just got some new advice!

John (thanks John) advises:

You should use a quality butane from brands like Colibri, Puretane, Vector etc. The brand name is less important than how refined it is. Personally, I use 9x refined Colibri for my torches.

Cheap butane like Ronson has more impurities and it can clog up your lighter and ruin it. Long lighters are pretty cheap, so maybe it’s not worth the hassle, but I’ve ruined torches with low quality butane in the past.

I’d found that I could only refill the lighters about 4 or 5 times and then they just wouldn’t light, even when there was enough butane in them. So I thought the problem was my butane. But the thing is, one bottle of butane has lasted me over a decade. So, I’m embarrassed to discover after more than four years (and throwing out some lighters):

ADDITIONAL USEFUL ADVICE:

If the lighters don’t light, the problem may be that the head of the lighter is dirty (possibly from cheap butane). Most online sources recommended cleaning it with compressed air, but I didn’t have any, so I angled a brush around the end of the lighter (not so easy, since it’s enclosed with plastic) AND I used a long needle, inserting it into the combustion chamber (that’s what the net is calling it). And voila! The two lighters that weren’t working, but had enough gas, suddenly worked.

Posted in Advice, Consumer, Home | 33 Comments

That old ‘ise’ vs ‘ize’ chestnut

Originally published 12 September 2013 on www.boldface.com.au:

I love my new career as an editor and copywriter.

Looking at the ins and outs of language and how it changes with time and geography fascinates me.

Raised in Canada, of course we knew that there was a difference between the way we said ‘zed’ and Americans said ‘zee’. Ah yes, and ‘colour’ and ‘color’.

But I was unaware of other regional differences. After arriving in London to work, after two years in Brussels, I remember sitting down in my new managerial position, and correcting the spelling on a document written by one of my project workers.

He sat in silence while I corrected ‘organisation’ to ‘organization’ and it was only a week or two later that I discovered, to my horror, that I had been completely ignorant of the difference between ‘ise’ and ‘ize’ in the United Kingdom. ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’ I asked but he just shrugged. He’d treated me (and continued to treat me) with passive aggression, and it was just another proof (to him) of my foreign ignorance and ill suitability for the job.

Here in Australia, it was a slow process, but I finally got used to using ‘ise’ instead of ‘ize’ for everything. It’s much easier here to just decide that there are no exceptions and to stick with that construction, whether to spell a word like ‘authorise’ or ‘realise’, even though a number of z’s have snuck into writing here.

Recently, I got a job editing a report for an international agency that uses the Oxford English Dictionary as their guide on spelling.

This should be easy enough, I thought, as Oxford implies (to me at least) spelling from the United Kingdom.

But I was surprised to find out they spell nearly ALL variants with a ‘z’.

So:

customize
patronize
sensitize
finalize
authorize
mobilize
marginalization
organization
humanize
recognize
civilization
utilize

But: it’s not possible to go all the way with ‘ize’ as I found a handful of exceptions:

analyse
advertise
exercise
supervise
catalyse
disenfranchise

It kind of wanted to make my head explode! But at the same time, I find it kind of amusing. When people find out I’m an editor, they picture me with a tight bun, pulling my hair back from my face, and lecturing them on language rules. But because there are so many rules and different kinds of rules, the aim is consistency, not perfection (though perfection is nice to strive for), and I think a good editor needs to be as flexible and adaptable as they are strict.

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